"A man's a man for a' that," "For a' That and a' That," or "For Honest Poverty," depending on the publication, is a social commentary presented through song. Written in his rural dialect, Burns' song is directed towards the Scottish peasantry, a class he himself was born into and only allowed to escape, ironically, via his literary success. Accordingly, the composition strives to elevate working-class values and criticize those of the elite. The song's refrain, "a' that" (all that)¹, is a generalization that serves to illuminate the immensity of its subject matter: moral value is not determined by this or that but, rather, by "all that." What emerges is a sort of ethical philosophy in miniature, a set of memorable lines that elevate conventional values (charity, humility, wisdom, etc.) over the vulgarities of indulgence. The speaker’s message is, essentially, a reiteration of a basic Christian doctrine his audience would be quite familiar with, and it is for this reason that he can speak of such weighty matters in such simple terms. The generalizations, the "all that," are sufficient, for his listeners can immediately spot the point of reference - Burns merely provides an approachable medium through which one can remind themselves of common values at day's end.
The song begins with a rhetorical question through which Burns frames his intentions. He asks if “honest poverty” (line 1)² is enough to draw us into despondency, a question for which the prompted response is "no." And, in a sense, the remainder of the poem is a running list of instances by which such an answer is justified. Conversely, any individual who would answer "yes" to this inaugural question is said to be a "coward slave," and it is through the criticism of such an individual that Burns attempts to encourage the contrary conclusion. The virtuous person will simply "pass him by", as they are above the strictures of wealth and "dare [to] be poor" (lines 3-4) if it is for the benefit of a higher order that overshadows our "toil" (line 6). The opening stanza then concludes with a quick reflection on how the promoted moral is met by society. On this subject, Burns is less than optimistic and writes that "The rank is but the guinea's stamp" (line 7), a line which reproaches the economic determinism of society. Instead, the final line reiterates that, though it is not evident, an individual's worth is actually derived from higher virtues.
Stanza two continues this method of comparison as Burns begins with an image of modesty in the first two lines. He describes those who sustain themselves through "hamely fare" (affable or homely attributes) and are clothed in "hodden-gray," a type of coarse, undyed wool typically worn by the Scottish peasantry (OED). This image is juxtaposed with one of "fools" and "knaves" who are drawn to "silks" and "wine" (line 11), creating a portrait of moral humility drawn up against worldly and base indulgence. Additionally, it is through these desires, those decisions made by all regardless of wealth, that one's morality is more justly approximated - it is he who cares not for “tinsel” that is "king o' men" (lines 16-18). Stanza three takes a "birkie" (a conceited individual) who serves as a lord and scrutinizes him under the same lens. "Tho' hundreds worship at his word" (line 19) he is, like the fools and knaves, a "coof" (blockhead) on account of his "ribband" and "star," gilded tokens that are meaningless to the free thinkers who laugh at his depravity (lines 22-24).
At this point, one will have taken notice of the song's formulaic and repetitive development, for stanzas two and three have effectively mirrored one another in terms of content and form. In both stanzas, an example of the morality one should avoid is denounced before the superiority of its antithesis; however, this degree of repetition is rescued from monotony when one recalls that the poem is meant to be heard, not read. Indeed, the song's peculiar yet consistent meter is the careful reader's reminder of this. The lines of each stanza range from anapestic dimeter to iambic tetrameter, but instead of signifying a rich, thematic complexity, the meter is actually a reflection of an underlying musical notation (McGuirk 286). Thus, what may have become dull to the reader remains fresh to the listener, for the latter's attention is sustained by the added element of instrumentation.
Moving forward, the continued repetition in stanza four is best understood with this in mind. Burns now turns his attention to a prince who can “make a belted knight, / A marquis, duke, an' a' that;” (lines 25-26). But, once again, this individual’s power is offset by that of the “honest man” who rests above the prince’s reach, the prince lacking the “guid faith” held by his adversary (lines 27-28). What this amounts to is a contrast of “dignities,” as it is the one who displays “pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth” that is a “higher rank than a’ that” (lines 30-32). But although this stanza follows the same formula as its predecessors, it as well as the others will reveal slight semantic differences under scrutiny. As has been said, its object of criticism is a prince who can be said to represent power; retroactively, stanza three’s is a lord who represents intimidation; and stanza two’s objects are the fools and knaves who represent base desire. In this way, each of the three body stanzas can be said to embody a different vice which is then countered by its corresponding virtue.
The final stanza breaks the mold and considers the universal good that can emerge when the aforementioned virtues are put into practice. The first two lines anticipate an age when “sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth / May bear the gree, an’ a’ that” (lines 35-36), the latter line translating as “to be the victor.” Just what this age entails can be found in the poem's final line which envisions a world where “brothers be for a’ that,” “be” inferring a universal bond of comradery in which the influence of moral virtue governs our actions, and “for a’ that” representing the virtues themselves. Admittedly, the identity of the “a’ that” in the final line is open to interpretation, but this is also true elsewhere. Different parts of the song are, in fact, open to different interpretations depending on one’s reading of “a’ that” in key places. Take line 8 as an example, “The man’s the gowd for a’ that.” The former analysis identifies the generalization as virtue, but a different reading may take it to mean wealth, a reading that would shift the tone towards sarcasm. Nonetheless, most discrepancies will not detract from the prevailing theme, the doctrine that base vulgarity falls before the triumph of principles.
¹Scots translations sourced via Robert Burns: Selected Poems (Penguin, 1993)
²Virginia Lucas's transcription of this song omits stanza's three and four of the official version. In order to grasp the complete meaning of the piece, this transcription has been completed with reference to the official version found at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43805/for-a-that-and-a-that
Burns, Robert. “For a' That and a' That by Robert Burns.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry
Burns, Robert. Robert Burns: Selected Poems. Edited by Carol McGuirk, Penguin Books, 1993.
"hodden, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019,
www.oed.com/view/Entry/87526. Accessed 26 March 2019.
McGuirk, Carol. Notes. Robert Burns: Selected Poems. Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 189-291.